Fury, frenzy, furor or fracas? How about Franzenfreude? Addled editors will alliterate, and this week's publication of Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom has inspired a major outbreak.
The author who trash-talked Oprah and went on to sell three million copies of The Corrections, his last novel, is once again the epitome of all that's wrong and all that's right about making and selling long reads in the digital age. Hailed by some as a masterpiece of U.S. literature and denounced by others as the overpraised product of a white-male racket, the most anticipated novel of the year - Franzen's first in almost a decade - has touched off a culture war pitting the elite against the masses, the literary against the commercial, men against women and everybody against The New York Times.
This time around, it was none other than U.S. President Barack Obama who unwittingly set the machine in motion when he accepted a free copy of Freedom from the Bunch of Grapes bookstore while vacationing last month on Martha's Vineyard. "You can't pay for that kind of publicity," a spokesman for the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, told The New York Times. "You can't even dream of it."
Unfortunately, nobody could buy their own copy of the book, either. The President accepted an "advance reading copy" as a gift 11 days before its official publication date of Aug. 31 in the United States. (It appears in Canadian bookstores Saturday.) But news reports failed to make the distinction, leading to widespread anger among legions of customers unable to follow his lead.
That frustration was only aggravated by a steady stream of rave reviews for the still-unpublished book, led by a 3,000-word review by New York Times book editor Sam Tanenhaus calling it "a masterpiece of American literature," and a second review in the same paper (by Michiko Kakutani, whom Franzen once derided as "the stupidest person in New York"), calling it "an indelible portrait of our times." A much-remarked Time magazine cover story hailed Franzen as a "Great American Novelist." Across the pond, The Guardian called Freedom "the novel of the century" and "simply on a different plane from other contemporary fiction."
This all proved too much for bestselling "chick lit" authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, who led the predictable backlash. "Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the pain of others," said Weiner, author of Good in Bed and Best Friends Forever. "Franzenfreude is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen."
Piccoult, author of House Rules, mused that she'd love to see "the NYT rave about writers who aren't white male literary darlings" and "Carl Hiaasen doesn't have to choose between getting a Times review and being a bestseller. Why should I? Oh right - girlparts."
Who's to say where the discussion will go now that Freedom can actually be read?
As for Obama, "he is reading it and finds it entertaining," according to White House press secretary Bill Burton.